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The Vatican votes for Charles Darwin

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November 11, 2005 18:38 IST

In a surprising move, the Vatican has come out in defence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, saying it is perfectly compatible with the Bible's description of how God created the universe.

In 1858, Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace proposed the modern theory of evolution on the basis of the concept of natural selection. With the publication of his book The Origin of Species a year later, Darwin effectively challenged the long-held view that all living beings had been created by an omniscient God. He proposed that evolution occurs because any heritable trait that increases an individual's chance of successfully reproducing will become more common from one generation to the next, through inheritance.

Now, criticising Christian fundamentalists who reject Darwin in favour of a literal interpretation of the Bible's account, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard, has said that both theories are 'perfectly compatible' if the Bible is read correctly. The statement has been viewed as an attack on creationist campaigners in America, who see both theories as mutually exclusive.

At a recent news conference on a Vatican project to help end the 'mutual prejudice' between science and theology, Poupard said that fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim. The Bible's message, according to him, was part of theology, which the precise details surrounding creation belonged to the realm of science. He added that it was important for Catholic believers to know how science saw things in order to 'understand things better.'

'We know where scientific reason can end up by itself,' said Cardinal Poupard, 'the atomic bomb and the possibility of cloning human beings are fruit of a reason that wants to free itself from every ethical or religious link'. At the same time, he emphasised, 'we also know the dangers of a religion that severs its links with reason and becomes prey to fundamentalism…The faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity.'

Interestingly, according to a recent column by William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times of London, the Catholic Church has never opposed evolution, rather the tendency of some evolutionists to equate it with atheism. He points out that nearly 1,500 years before Darwin, St Augustine of Hippo – described as the most commanding intellect of all early doctors of the Church – taught a doctrine of evolution! In his De Genesis ad Litteram (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis), he said that God did not create an organised Universe the way we see it now, but a 'nebulous' mass -- the seeds of creatures that were to come.

Poupard's statements have, needless to say, not gone down well in Italy, where it has been seen as a rejection of the idea of 'intelligent design' according to which the universe is so complex that some higher being must obviously have been responsible for designing every detail.

A Correspondent